Now that Hulu has launched a television show based on Maragaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought it was finally time I read the book. In this age of consumerism that often masquerades as feminism, Atwood’s novel of dystopian fiction was apparently one of the best sellers on Amazon earlier this year.
We are introduced to Gilead, a fascist state that has risen after the United States as we knew fell. Women are now categorized neatly into roles – wives, breeders, cooks, maids, matron-types who indoctrinate women into the new order, and Unwomen who do not fit into any of these categories. Every group has its uniform. The narrator, Offred, named so because she belongs at this moment to a man named Fred, tells us of the world that was and the world that exists now. She is a breeder – therefore still deemed valuable. She wears red, the colour of fecundity. Most wives are infertile, the reasons for which could be many – their lifestyles, their sexual proclivities, their erstwhile fondness for contraception, the climate, radiation, toxic chemicals, STDs that got around. Men are never sterile, but you knew that of course.
Women in Gilead are forbidden from thinking, reading and writing. They exist to perform their duty – reproduction – and they are to have no distractions while they go about their task. Offred undergoes rape at pre-determined intervals in order to become pregnant. Women are plain to behold – why do they need to look pretty if their job doesn’t require it? Is this the author’s way of calling attention to first wave feminists?
Successfully conditioned women in Gilead believe they were saved from the excesses of the old world – the pornography, lesbians, the pressure to find a man, chaos. In the new world, there is order; no one gets left behind. This is especially relevant when we think of how women internalize patriarchy, and justify their actions as well as actions of others that are detrimental to them as women.
It is obvious that the story is an extension of where we could be if we stop fighting for equal rights. The intolerance for anyone not conforming to what is considered acceptable behaviour, the thoughtless demarcation of gender roles, the criminalization of homosexuality – all of this exists around us today, and when stretched to extremes, it is nightmarish to imagine what our world would be like. And yet, I am not quite sure what this novel was trying to tell me. Maybe it was telling me that when women have little or no power, the few women with power will only serve themselves; they are not obliged to make the situation better for other women. Or that without a strong sense of right or wrong, much like the narrator, whom I found exasperating, we are in danger of becoming afterthoughts ourselves.
Comparison with George Orwell’s 1984 is inevitable – that other great dystopian novel which invented a new language to frighten us out of our collective senses. I remember reading 1984 once when I was much younger, and while all the subtext was lost on me then, I found it to be a thrilling novel. I read feverishly, I couldn’t rest until I found out what happened to Winston Smith. The handmaid’s life holds suspense, but not enough for me. Gilead’s language bears too much resemblance to the language of the past (or our present), and while this may be seen as the absence of gimmicks, I would have much preferred an invention like Newspeak.
Is The Handmaid’s Tale strictly dystopian though? How much of Offred’s life is science fiction? Many women continue to live lives of brutality marked out by their biology.